Today, I should have been in Marquette, Michigan, racing the Marji Gesick mountain bike marathon.
Finishing the race last year was just about the hardest athletic thing I’ve ever done, up there with the Arrowhead and perhaps only exceeded by the Fat Pursuit. I super eager to do the race again this year, but alas: the pandemic forced its cancellation.
Instead, I headed into the woods here in Northfield for a ninety-minute bike ride on our far easier but still fun trails. Riding the same bike I’d used a year ago at the Marji, I reflected on how much training for and riding in that race changed me as a bike rider.
Some of the changes are pretty trivial, ones I could have achieved with plain old hard work: I use my brakes far less often now than I did 18 or 24 months ago, and I’m far better at riding technical stuff with some speed. But other changes are more interesting, and probably more valuable as we look, as a society, down the long tunnel of this pandemic, work against social injustice, and a tumultuous election. I think they can be reduced to a willingness to be patient and to suffer quietly. Right now is not the time (no matter what the president and his supporters think!) for a white guy to whinge. Just like this night last year, but I have to (metaphorically) just avoid crashing and keep turning the cranks. Maybe donating some money to Democratic senate candidates would be a good start.
I have, I think, eleven masks. I have one stashed in each car, two hanging from a hook in my office, one or two on the hat rack at home, and the rest… Uh… Most of them are in my backpack, I think, but maybe a couple are stuffed in handlebar bags on my bikes.
Today, I headed off to the coffeeshop before work without one around my neck. “No problem,” I thought as I rode along, “I’ll dig one out of my backpack before I go inside.” Nope. Nothing there. I zipped my jacket up as high as I could, just under my nose, and went in. “Do you have any spare masks?” I asked. Luckily, they did, and the barista slid one over the counter to me. Crisis averted. When I got to work, I found the two on the hook, one on the cabinet where I leave my bike helmet, and one on my desk. They both went into my backpack for Monday.
I hope that I always remember the scent of wearing a mask: warm, soft, slightly humid, breathy. It’s not appealing, exactly, but it’s not gross either; it’s more like the olfactory equivalent of the taste of a medicine. I like the scent inasmuch as perceiving it tells me that I have my mask on, which is usually the right thing to do. And I’m used to the smell enough now that it fades away after a few minutes. This afternoon, I almost tried to take a drink through my mask, I’d gotten so used to it!
The 2019 Arrowhead 135 Ultra – my sixth Arrowhead and thirteenth winter ultra – went about as well as any race I’ve ever done. I finished in 14th place in just over 21 hours, my second-fastest time but my most consistent effort. This year’s race was run in conditions that ranged from cold down to Arctic, which caused huge attrition. Of the 75 cyclists who started the race on Monday morning, only 39 finished – a rate of 52%. Attrition rates were even worse in the other disciplines: four skiers and three kicksledders started, but none finished; 64 runners started but only 20% finished – just 13 insanely tough human beings.
My good result involved some luck, for sure. We didn’t get any heavy snow during the race, for instance. I didn’t have a flat tire or mechanical problem. And I didn’t make a wrong turn!
But I also felt that I had prepared pretty well for the race. Though by race day, I had not logged as many bike miles as I would have liked, I did do some good training rides in November and December, building on more gym training than I have ever done. And I had raced well at the Tuscobia 160 at the end of December and at the St. Croix 40 in the middle of January. Were those good results flukes? The Arrowhead would tell me!
Preparation mattered right up to the start. On the night before the race, I packed the Blue Buffalo, my Salsa Mukluk X01 fatbike, more quickly and cleanly than I ever had before, which let me get to bed at a good time and wake up – after an anxiety dream about missing the start and then being unable to pedal because my frame bag was overstuffed – feeling rested and ready. I remember fumbling like a fool a couple years ago to pack up. Experience paid off.
Even better than a well-packed bike and good sleep, the weather forecast had continued to improve overnight. A few days before the race, the forecast – taking into account the irruption of the polar vortex – called for -20º or lower at the start, and very little improvement over the 24 hours I’d be riding – basically the same conditions we had had in 2018 (which had been about 20º lower than the forecast!), and similar to my first Arrowhead, in 2014. As race day approached, though, the forecasts moderated to a predicted 0º at the start, highs around 5º during the day, and then a dip back to about -10º overnight. This was pretty much ideal fatbike racing weather: easy to dress for, easy to ride in, easy to adjust to.
The possibility of super cold temperatures daunted me enough that I had withdrawn from the “unsupported” category in which I’d raced in 2017 and 2018. Unsupported riders could not use the three race checkpoint to warm up, rest, and dry out, nor to resupply with food and water. I had successfully finished the AH both years I’d gone unsupported, but both races had been ragged and hard. I decided I didn’t need to prove to myself that I could finish unsupported again, especially if the temperatures were going to be terrible.
I didn’t have a pang of regret about not racing unsupported as I rode the Blue Buffalo on race morning from the hotel to the start line at the city ice arena in International Falls. Temps were just below zero – perfect . I spent a little too much time at the start saying hi to friends and then trying to troubleshoot another rider’s flat tire, so when the fireworks went off at 7 a.m., I still hadn’t turned on my GPS or buckled my helmet. Oops! I did manage to get moving before the skiers started two minutes later, though, and soon enough I was moving up through the pack. Waaaay up front, I could see the blinking red lights of the three guys who would vie for the win: Jorden Wakeley from Michigan and Ben Doom and Neil Beltchenko from Minnesota.
For the first ten miles of the race, heading south from International Falls on the Blue Ox Trail, I rode with a sizable group. We were moving fast, but not overly so, and even better, we were riding smoothly. None of the spastic passing or abrupt stops that sometimes mess with the rhythm in this early stretch. Within an hour, we made the turn off Blue Ox and onto the Arrowhead Trail: wide, smooth, lit by the sun that had just appeared over the treeline ahead. As usual, the big group broke up here, with a few riders stopping at the three-sided wooden shelter to adjust clothes or to eat and drink, a few others speeding up to take advantage of the good track, some others slowing to recover from too much effort already.
I rode on, enjoying the yellow glow in the sky ahead, and feeling a little chillier here in the open country than I had fifteen minutes before in the corridor of Blue Ox. I scrubbed the snow off my GPS unit’s screen and was shocked to see a temperature reading of -22º – an incredible drop in the last hour. I wondered if the forecast was going to be wrong again, but I did not wonder, as I would have in previous years, whether I should just ride through the cold. Instead, I stopped immediately to put on a facemask and a heavier hat, which worked wonders. When I tried to take a sip of my hydration drink, I found that the hose had frozen, so I tucked it deep into my jacket and hoped my body heat would thaw it. And I stopped to take a bad photo of the amazing sundog in the eastern sky, the biggest and brightest one I have ever seen.
My hand got pretty cold taking that photo, but that was the only moment when I had any trouble with my extremities. After badly frostbiting my right fingers in 2018, I worried – and was repeatedly told to worry – that they would always be sensitive to cold, and that they would be more likely to get frostbit again. I was very glad that they held up during my training rides and that they didn’t act up during the race – even when I was taking barehanded pictures of the sky at -20º F.
Later I learned that quite a few riders had been caught out by this cold snap, including several who suffered frostbite on their hands and feet. In my extra layers, though, I felt good, and rode smoothly over the next 10 or 15 miles. A few riders moved past me, I caught a few others, but I was mostly already alone – my favorite way to ride. Softer trail – chewed up by snowmobiles – required me to stop and let some pressure out of the Blue Buffalo’s tires, but 10psi turned out to be right for the rest of the race, even after the trails firmed up again. I did enjoy seeing my friends John and Bill, who’d driven up to the race with me; they were riding their fatbikes up and down the course to cheer on racers and take in the sights.
I knew they were not far from the first checkpoint at the Kabetogama Gateway General Store, so I pushed a little and rolled in to Gateway around 11 a.m. I had a loose race strategy that put me at Gateway by 11, at the second checkpoint at Melgeorges resort by four, and at the third checkpoint by midnight – and then to finish sometime overnight, perhaps ahead of my personal best time of 19:30 (a 2:30 am. finish). Or perhaps not; the trail would dictate!
Inside Gateway, I grabbed a chair and sucked down a Coke and a bowl of soup, chatting with some friends. Charly had dropped out with stomach problems, Aaron from overheating. Kellie was there just hanging out. Charly warned me that she was giving out hugs, but her squeeze around the shoulders felt pretty nice after four hours of riding. Charly did more helpfully say that he thought the second leg – from mile 36 to Melgeorges at mile 72 – was the hilliest of the race. I had always thought of the third leg, which I’ve always hit in the dark, as having the most climbs, but he reminded me that that leg included a very long flat stretch before the jagged hills started at about mile 95. Okay, so riding well to Melgeorges would get me past the halfway point in the race and over a good chunk of the climbing. Even after five races on the Arrowhead Trail, I was still learning stuff!
Refreshed, I headed back out at 11:15, ready for the hills. The sky had clouded over, raising the temperature to zero or so and making for some wonderfully easy and fast riding. I made great time with the Blue Buffalo on the flats, and enjoyed hiking up and then zipping down the occasional hills. I saw two or three other racers, but I don’t think I passed or was passed by anyone. I did have to stop at one road crossing – the infamous Sheep Ranch Road, where many racers drop out because it’s one of the last easy spots cars can reach – when a spectator urgently asked me for my name. He was disappointed that I was not another racer he was trying to find. Sorry, dude!
A bit later, I rounded a corner and hit the first big beastly climb. At the crest, a spectator was madly cheering for another rider who was almost to the top.
He clapped for me as I pushed my bike to the top too, then gave me a great slap on the back when I made it. We chatted for a second while I caught my breath and ate (trail mix, Fritos) and drank (nutrition drink through the thawed hose!) and I professed my lust for his bike, a tricked-out Salsa Blackborow longtail fatbike. What a beautiful machine. Parting, he told me that I was now basically on the downhill toward Elephant Lake and Melgeorges.
I knew from my GPS that I was getting close to the Melgeorges checkpoint – and first to the midpoint of the course at mile 67 – but I liked his confirmation that the rest of the way to the CP was literally downhill. My legs had started aching a couple hours before, probably from riding a little too hard out of Gateway, and I was eager to sit on a sofa at Melgeorges. I had planned to stop for no more than 30 minutes at Melgeorges, but when I stopped a bit later, aching, to take a photo of the Blue Buffalo at mile 67,
I decided that I’d give myself an hour or until my legs felt better. A bit more rest would, I hope, pay off with more strength for the third leg, and the fourth.
Just a few minutes after that brief stop, I saw Bill and John again, stationed helpfully at the top and bottom of a fast downhill. I gave them a wave on the way down, loving the free speed that carried me almost all the way to Elephant Lake. The lake is always dauntingly open and starkly beautiful, a last test before reaching the second checkpoint. After nearly 70 miles of twisting, undulating trails through the woods, the mile of flat and open path – marked by dozens of reflective signposts, by the tracks of snowmobiles, and by a thin thread of bike treads – is a shock. I hooked up with another rider to make the crossing. For whatever reason, we rode on the right side of the row of signposts, not the left, which really bothered me. The other rider kept talking, but between my bad hearing, my helmet and hat, and the wind, I could not understand more than a few words, which sounded to me like heavily accented English.
Gradually we reeled in the far shore of the lake, Melgeorges’ cabins growing larger and more distinct. Usually the cabins are lit up with Christmas lights, but in this year’s late-afternoon overcast, I didn’t notice them.
We reached land again and turned down a tight trail that led to the checkpoint. I immediately crashed, unable to adjust to the six-inch trail after hours and hours of twenty-foot trail. Though the race photographer was just a few feet away, he didn’t capture my display of skill, and shook his head when I asked if wanted me to crash again.
I wound up spending an hour and a half at Melgeorges, but the time was not wasted. I changed into dry baselayers, which felt marvelous, and set my gloves, hat, and facemask to drying. More importantly, I sat on the sofa and – after melting off my icebeard – ate and drank well (a couple of the famous grilled cheese sandwiches, a couple bowls of wild rice soup, a can of Coke, some chocolate milk, a lot of Doritos, some applesauce to calm my stomach…). I didn’t talk much to the other racers or volunteers; I didn’t want to pop my bubble of concentration on the race. A few racers came in after me, and a bunch left while I was resting. Several announced that they were dropping out. Some of them looked like hell; others looked fine. I didn’t know how I looked, but every time I stood up, I assessed my legs. Gradually their heaviness faded, and I felt ready to go.
The volunteer noted my checkout time and I went outside to handle a few more tasks in the waning light.
While I changed my headlamp batteries, put my puffy jacket in a better spot, and refilled my trail mix, I wound up talking with Todd, an Arrowhead veteran who has seen just about everything. He filled me in on the racers who were vying for the win – Wakeley had a big lead – and offered some tips for handling the third and the fourth legs. I finally climbed back onto the Blue Buffalo just as dusk fell, a bit later than I had hoped. I was happy to trade a few minutes of daylight for refreshed legs.
Last year, I’d roared out of Melgeorges and missed the turn off the spur trail to the Arrowhead trail itself, then rode the wrong way for five miles before two other racers corrected me – a cost of ten miles round trip and more than an hour of riding time. This year, I crept up the spur, headlamp on high, to make goddamn sure I would not miss the correct turn. This hill, that curve, this long straightaway, and then the turn, very well marked! I stopped to double-check that all of the bike tracks were running in the direction I was traveling, and then I hit the gas. The next twenty miles – just as Charly had promised back at the first checkpoint – were easy, fun, fast cruising in my biggest gear, which I rarely touch in fatbike races. I hardly had to think, just keep my front wheel in the track worn in by the dozen or so riders in front of me. I could almost steer the Blue Buffalo by sound: if the sound of my tires on the snow changed from the sizzle of frying bacon to the crunch of crumpling paper, I had drifted off the track and needed to nudge myself back.
Even the few hills were straightforward. Some, I hit with enough momentum that I cruised most of the way up, and then could grunt out the last few pedal strokes. A steeper few required me to ride as high up as possible, then jump off and push to the top. About the only problem I had was a sloppy dismount when I smashed my crotch against my bike. Stars, breathlessness, an ache that took a couple hours to dissipate… That’s bike racing!
Like the leg to Melgeorges, I was almost entirely alone in this section, riding into an infinity of lightly falling snow and wide white trail. Just a few miles past the checkpoint, I did come across one rider who was dealing with a flat tire. I think he said he had it handled, so I kept going. At a road crossing an hour later, I met the same spectator who’d misidentified me earlier in the day. He now asked if I’d seen a racer with a flat. I said I had, about ten miles before. The guy wondered if he should walk in to help the racer. I said that the rider was far closer to Melgeorges, if he turned around, than we were to him. The spectator seemed to want to talk more about it, but I needed to get going again. I was dressed for riding, not a chat at a windy road crossing at 10 p.m.! I felt a little bad at leaving the guy there, but then again, everyone riding in the Arrowhead should know how to get out of trouble. Turns out, this racer was fine. He did have to limp back to Melgeorges, where he dropped out.
Soon after that awkward moment, I reached the sawtooth hills. In full dark, with my headlamps illuminating a small yellow spot about ten feet in front of my bike, they all started looking alike: a steep white wall, marked partway up with a web of bike tracks and then the rest of the way with one or two tracks and a mess of footprints. I could ride a few of these slopes, but on the rest, I tried to ride further than the first footprints and then dismounted – without smashing my groin – for a few minutes of hike-a-bike.
The pushing was actually a relief, stretching leg muscles that were tight from riding and loosening my back. I varied my strategies for making it to the top. Sometimes I’d count out ten or twenty steps, pause, and do it again. Other times, I’d pick a spot on the hill and walk to it, break, then walk to a new one. Few of the hills seemed as steep or exhausting as I remembered. And every uphill meant a fun downhill, including quite a few that were so steep, I could not see the bottom from the top. I felt a lot more sure of myself on those descents than I did even last year, thanks to a ton of mountain biking over the summer. The Blue Buffalo too helped, being snappier than my previous machine and loaded very differently. Having my heavy sleeping bag on my rear rack made the front end so much more responsive.
I took a photo of the hill in front of me at mile 100, where I had century of trail behind me and only 35 miles in front of me.
5 or 6 hours to go, unless something bad happened. Even though the race had gone as smoothly to this point as just about any fatbike race I’d ever done, I was still braced for a problem – mental, physical, mechanical, meteorological. I was a bit suspicious, in fact, of how well everything was working, from the way my clothes fit and kept me warm to the way the Blue Buffalo disappeared under me, just doing its job. I’ve had three Salsa Mukluks and love them all, but this one feels even more right than did its predecessors (since sold to other riders!). I knew exactly how pedaling would feel when I shifted up or down, exactly how the bike would slow when I squeezed the brake, exactly how my saddle would feel (cold!) when I sat back down after a few minutes of pushing. The comfortable expectation must have resembled how an equestrian feels with her horse, a hunter with his gun dog, a quarterback with a favorite receiver.
I had reason to be a little worried. Last year, I’d had a flat tire somewhere around mile 100. I wasted 90 minutes of time on the trail and countless calories trying to fix the flat, and wound up frostbiting my right hand pretty severely before – finally – two other racers came along and helped, saving my race. Mulling over this problem during the year between then and now, I wondered if I had caused the flat by riding too roughly over one of the many bridges that span frozen creeks running between the hills. Maybe, maybe not, but I tried hard this year to ride the bridges as smoothly as possible. Maybe this helped, maybe not, but I did avoid a flat!
I could not avoid the building fatigue in my legs. Hills that would have been rideable a couple hours before were now, hours out of Melgeorges but maybe still hours from the third checkpoint, hard enough that I had to push them from bottom to top. Mile 103 was the worst, a series of hills that defied my pedaling; compelled me to pause, chest heaving, at every crest; and then provided seconds-long downhills that offered no recovery. I’ll bet I needed twenty or thirty minutes to cover that mile.
I tried to force myself to eat and drink as I walked, but everything on my bike tasted like ash – except for my energy gels, which I normally take only if I’m bonking and need their fakey sweetness. This year, they tasted delicious, so I slurped one down every half hour or so.
And then up ahead I saw the red glow of a biker’s taillights. Company! My rookie year at Arrowhead, I’d been caught around here by Charlie, a vet who gave me the boost I needed to get to the third checkpoint. A couple years ago, I’d ridden this stretch with Jesse, a Michigander who rides a singlespeed bike in the race each year. Jesse was here again, but I had no idea if he was ahead or behind me. Last year, I’d here been following the two riders who had helped with my flat tire.
I didn’t have to speed up to catch this rider, who turned out to be my partner in crossing Elephant Lake about six hours before. He was in rough shape. About the first thing he said to me was, “Fucking mile 103! That must have been five miles long.” He turned out not to have an accent at all – well, to have a Minnesota accent. On the lake, he’d just been too tired to speak clearly. Now we chatted a little. He was close to bonking, but couldn’t have any of my food because he could not have any gluten. So he plugged away on peanut M&Ms and nutrition drink, here a few yards ahead of me, there a few yards behind.
Having him nearby helped me stop counting the pedal strokes and hills and miles to the third checkpoint, which appeared out of nowhere after a curve in the trail. Usually I have to beg the gods for permission to reach this spot – just a shelter and a bonfire along the side of the trail – but this year they freely gave it to me. I didn’t argue, just grabbed some stuff from the Blue Buffalo,
leaned it in the snow,
got a Dixie cup of hot water, and went into the warming tent. A few volunteers and unsupported racers were standing around the bonfire a few feet away. Someone – I hoped not a racer – was smoking a joint.
The tent was disappointingly chilly. I sat as close to the wood-burning stove as I could, shivering but trying not to burn my knees. I dried my facemask and gloves a little, but I didn’t want to burn them either, so I basically just steamed them. I did melt off my icebeard, which I hoped would prevent frostbite over the last leg: 24 miles at ten or twenty degrees below. I chatted a little with Dave, the race photographer, and with a very dedicated spectator who had come all the way out to cheer on his son.
I also talked to a couple other racers who came and went, including the guy I’d linked up with just before the checkpoint. When he left, I decided I need to get going too. I had not felt very tired yet – I don’t think I’d even yawned, much less starting wrestling the sleep monster – but just in case, I washed down a caffeine tablet with a swig of Red Bull and stowed more tabs and a second Red Bull in a pocket where I could get them easily even if I was bonking. After swaddling my head in hat, buff, and face mask, I put on my puffer jacket – an extra layer of defense against the cold on the open swamps I’d cross on the way to the finish. I probably needed a minute to arrest my shivering hands enough that I could fit together the impossibly tiny pieces of the zipper. I was lucky to still feel good enough that the trouble was comical, not scary.
By now though I was thoroughly cold. I rode as hard as I could away from the checkpoint, building some heat. A mile later, I pushed my bike up the last big climb on the course, Wakemup Hill. I paused at the top – if not the course’s highest point, then at least the one that offers the longest view – to drink in the stars. Orion seemed just a little bit further out than the end of my headlamp’s beam.
I cautiously rode the Blue Buffalo down the rollercoaster descent off Wakemup, not eager to stack it up with about twenty miles to go. Two, three hours. 500, 600 calories. Not bad. I’d finish by five a.m. unless something bad happened.
Nothing did, and gradually less and less trail remained where trouble could lurk, even with my GPS showing -10°, -15°, -20°. A light tailwind pushed that air temperature down a few more degrees, but I didn’t notice the breeze except as ice on the back of my sleeves. I straightened my arms to break up the plates.
I came up on that rider I’d caught just before the third checkpoint. He was struggling, still or again, but seemed able to continue, so I went on. Having suffered my way through this section in several of my Arrowheads, I knew what he was going through, but I didn’t feel too guilty about feeling better than he did.
My legs were tired but not dead. My back didn’t ache. My hands and feet felt bendy and toasty. Another applesauce was keeping my stomach calm, a couple more gels keeping it full enough – but not banishing dreams of a burger and fries. When – despite my caffeine at the checkpoint – I started having trouble maintaining my line, I stopped and guzzled my last Red Bull. No need to be virtuous with ten miles to go! My lower lip froze momentarily to the lip of the can, but I licked it free and emptied the can from a safe distance above my mouth. A last few drops turned to slush in the rim of the can.
Bored now of looking up the trail, I rode for long stretches while looking off to the sides at the low evergreen scrub, the field of cattails wearing identical snowcaps, the trail signs hidden in overgrown trees, the snowmobile tracks leading off to who knew what. When I looked forward again, I seemed to be riding into a thin snow flurry, maybe six feet ahead of me and a foot above me. Was I actually just illuminating with my headlamp part of a low cloud? No, when I looked away, I saw black sky, the crescent moon, stars. But ahead of me, seemingly stretching off infinitely or at least to the finish line, was this weird line of snow. Finally, I realized that I was seeing my own condensed breath, carried by the tailwind up and away from me, where the water vapor turned to snow that floated down just as I rode through it. I started playing with it: a big lung-emptying exhalation created a miniature blizzard, a long hissed-out breath created a snaking line of flakes, turning my head as I breathed out created a fan of white dust…
I chased my personal snowstorm over the last road crossing. The finish line was just a mile or two ahead, outside the Fortune Bay casino. I glanced back to look for the guy I had passed. Nothing but white trail. I kept peering off to my right, hoping to see the glow of the casino building, which would mean I was within a few hundred yards of the finish. I kept not seeing the building, and then suddenly I saw instead the glow of the finish line itself: lights, a tent, the banner.
A jolt of adrenaline carried me up the last incline and over the spray painted snow. Volunteers came out to welcome me and take a photo. I was eager to get inside for soup and a beer.
This season’s Tuscobia winter ultra was my best race ever. I was happy from mile 0 to mile 160 with the way everything worked: mind, body, bike, kit, nutrition. Conditions ran the gamut from WTF to silky, but most of the trail was fast as hell, which helped me finish in 21:20, almost three hours faster than my previous best on this course and good enough for a tie for sixth place. I hope this all bodes well for the Arrowhead 135 at the end of January, but even if the Tuscobia was the high point of the season, I’ll be pretty satisfied with my sixth winter of fatbike racing.
I don’t think I am wrong in ascribing some of this good result to regular old experience. Tuscobia was my twelfth winter ultra* and (it turned out) my tenth successful finish**, so I had decent reason to feel, as I set up my bike in the hotel room on Friday night, that I knew what I was about to do. I was even comfortable enough to risk using new gear in the race. Zip ties for the win! My friend Ben Doom, a threat to win any race he entered, watched and lounged on his bed. I had hoped to get to sleep by 10:30 – for my sake and for Ben’s – but that didn’t happen. Oh well. I had plenty of caffeine pills packed on the bike!
My confidence or at least comfort carried over to Saturday morning. I took my time making final preparations, and wound up downing my last spoonful of oatmeal as Chris Scotch, the race director, shouted that we had one minute till the start. I scrambled outside, rolled my bike up to the starting area, reset my GPS unit, and started riding.
The opening miles of the Tuscobia are a flat, narrow run from the edge of the town of Rice Lake to the Tuscobia trail proper. With a relatively small field of about 35 starters, the pack riding was easy. I enjoyed the fact that each number plate carried both the racer’s number and name (or close to it: “Chris Tassava” in my case, since I guess my full name didn’t fit), allowing us to greet each other by first name. I didn’t catch the name of the guy riding in blue jeans. I wonder if he finished.
True to trail reports and my pre-ride the night before with Jill Martindale and Alexandera Houchin, the trail was hard and fast – a thin layer of snow or ice from being totally bare, and perfect for my Dillinger 5 tires. By the time we made the right turn across the highway and onto the Tuscobia State Trail, everyone had been pretty well sorted. Five miles or so further, the snow deepened a bit, so I stopped to air down from pavement pressure to gravel pressure. I never did have to go down to real snowbiking levels of single-digit PSI, which was amazing and, given the speeds allowed by 15 pounds on packed trail, welcome.
Over the rest of the leg to the first checkpoint in a park near the tiny town of Ojibwa, a couple riders passed me, and I passed a couple. I had trouble with the chunder on one of the rolling hills in the town of Birchwood, but judging by the footprints in the snow, so did almost everyone else. I took off my gloves and hat, far too warm for the conditions, and stowed them in case I needed them later. I kept up with my eating and drinking (trail mix and Infinit Go Far, mostly), which is sometimes hard to do when I’m going fast-ish. I slowed down to admire the Chippewa River, which was running low and black, like a ribbon of night sky, and to take a photo of the trail, striped with icy patches:
I’d hoped to get the checkpoint at Ojibwa – 44.5 miles into the race – by noon, so I was very happy to get there at a quarter to 11. I drank a big helping of chicken ramen (in my own cup: organizers didn’t supply any cups, bowls, or utensils this year!), drank some tepid water, and headed back out in about 20 minutes, a really quick stop for me.
Tuscobia is unique in that a half-distance race is run at the same time as the long race. The 80-mile runners, skiers, and riders start at 10:00 a.m. in Park Falls, the turnaround checkpoint for the long race, and head towards Rice Lake, where the bikers in the 160-mile race had started at 6:00 a.m. and would finish 18 or 24 or 30 hours later. It’s always fun and weird to encounter them 80-milers, and my good mood was only heightened by seeing the first 80-mile riders coming towards me a few miles outside the checkpoint. We exchanged encouragements and shouted trail reports back and forth, but everyone mostly kept motoring. The snow deepened here again, forcing everyone to share one four-inch deep slot. I was pleased to be able to do this pretty well, enjoying the way this riding felt a lot like mountain biking.
Occasionally I’d veer into the powder to let an 80-miler have the track, but more often they moved aside for me, which was generous. I waved to Ben as he came roaring toward me on his way to the finish, and later stopped briefly to talk with my friend Mark Seaburg, doing the 80 as a warmup for a far tougher race the next weekend in Idaho. He was his usual gracious self, complimenting my pace so far and telling me that the trail improved drastically nearer to Park Falls. I told him that he’d have to deal with the rut for a while, and some icy sections later, but that after Ojibwa, everything was fast as hell. Fists bumped, we headed out in our opposite directions.
Not long after that, I started meeting the 80-mile runners. So many of them, all pulling sleds loaded with all the required gear that I had strapped to my bike. They cheered for me, I cheered for them, and then I happily rode down the smooth groove packed down by their sleds, happy for some easier riding after six or more hours of effort. I had started to feel a little tired, so I consciously dialed things back. Reviewing my cue cards, I could see I had about 20 miles to the checkpoint in Park Falls, which meant about 100 to the finish – just a century! Very doable. The slower speed also let me enjoy the views of long walls of snowy trees, a sight I always love.
I still hadn’t fallen into my usual pit of watching the odometer on my GPS unit – a sign that my concentration is waning – when I saw the first puff of smoke from the paper mill in Park Falls. Getting close. The town’s old-fashioned silver water tower loomed ahead and then receded on the left, flickering in and out of the trees. How can something so big and tall disappear so easily? Finally, I saw the sign at the head of the Tuscobia State Trail, and then arrows directing me over the streets to the checkpoint, run again this year by the Park Falls Gastropub. I wheeled in at 3:00 p.m., a couple hours ahead of my goal of getting there by dinnertime.
Inside, I ate a grilled cheese and a giant bowl of salty soup, drank a can of Pepsi and took another for the road, chatted with the other racers, and studied the race tracker on a big TV over the table of food. Those of us in the checkpoint were in positions sixth through twelve or so – respectable spots, but far behind Ben Doom, who we could see had already left Ojibwa. He would finish around 7:30 p.m. in a time of 13:27, just shy of the course record but more than three hours ahead of the second-place rider. Ben in fact faster over the full distance than the winning 80-mile rider did over the shorter distance. Not a bad day on the bike!
Goaded a little by the checkpoint coordinator, who told us that we had only a half hour of daylight now, several of us began stirring. I didn’t want to ride with a big group, so I was happy to see that only Jill Martindale was really ready on leave. She and I headed out at four, pointing ourselves at the twilight peeking over the trees. On the forested trail, dusk came fast. I turned on my lights even before we passed the last few houses on the outskirts of Park Falls, or the creepy-looking bar with with its falling-down beer sign. In the gloaming, we met a last few 180-mile riders heading toward Park Falls, including our friend Leah Gruhn, on track for a second-place finish.
Trading pulls with Jill, I relished this moment of exertion and focus, which doesn’t come in every race. My legs are heavy, but I’m not gassed. My stomach doesn’t feel normal, but it’s full of food, and not upset. My shoulders and neck and butt ache, but I can still stretch away the pain. I have many miles behind me, but there are many, many more ahead. And, best, darkness has fallen. As far as I need to know or care, the world ends at the edge of my headlamp’s beam. All I have to do it ride into that spot.
Jill and I had discussed at the checkpoint whether she was on pace to break the women’s course record of about 22 hours. As we rolled out, she was, and so long as we kept our speed up over 6 mph, she’d be fine. I worried a bit about the rutted section where I’d met the 80 milers a few hours before, but the runners had widened and packed the ruts, so we barely noticed it.
What I did notice, in the deep black of the woods, was light, exaggerated by all the darkness. The faint reflection from the numeral on a mile marker glowed like a cell phone. Runners’ taillights – or, often, the Christmas lights draped over their sleds – flared like TVs. Lights on distant houses and garages, even screened by the trees, blazed like fires. And the headlights of cars or occasional snowmobiles seemed obscenely atomic, far too intense to look toward, before blessedly vanishing behind us. After one string of snowmobiles blasted past us, Jill said, aptly, “They sound like they’re breaking!”
Here and there, we paused to eat or drink, to take off or put on some item of clothing, or just to not pedal. We would start moving again after a minute or two, maybe saying a few words to decide who would lead. We told each other ghost stories – the windigo, the Michigan Dog Man – and pointed out things that looked like other things, like the tree that I was sure, until we passed, was a guy waving to us. We really did see an all-white hare run across the trail. I listened to my tires: a harsh static on loose snow, a high sizzle on the compacted stuff. Eyes forward, I could stay in the track by simply listening for one sound or the other. It felt a little magical. The chatter of the tires was my own real awareness of my bike, the Blue Buffalo, which functioned perfectly the whole day.
Assuming that the Ojibwa checkpoint would be pretty busy with runners, we decided to stop at a gas station in Winter, just a few miles on the near side of the checkpoint, where we would also have a wider selection of crap to eat and drink. They didn’t have any of the ginger ale I craved to settle my stomach – now a little burbly after 13 hours of citrus-flavored nutrition drink and trail mix – but we managed to find some other stuff to devour, and I happily accepted Jill’s offer of a squeeze packet of applesauce. I did rudely decline the offer of a guy there – apparently supporting another racer – to pull off my ice beard. Usually I’m good natured about that sort of thing, but this guy had probably been warm and dry all day, and the joke bugged me. “No. Don’t do that. Don’t ever fucking do that.” Sorry for being a jerk, Spectator Man!
Jill and I downed our snacks over a few minutes of sitting by the live-bait tanks
and then headed back out. As expected, the Ojibwa checkpoint was crowded with runners and a couple bikers, but since we had refreshed ourselves at the gas station, we didn’t linger. I did get my glass of ginger ale, which tasted like heaven.
9:16 p.m. and back on the trail, aimed at the finish line, still on pace for the new women’s record time. I flipped my cue sheet to the last page: 44.5 more miles. Now the race was very simple: stay warm, eat and drink, and pedal as hard as possible. After climbing to an afternoon high of about 15º F, the temperature had fallen back to about 5º, with a slight headwind pushing back at us. Chilly, but easily managed. Keep the jacket zipped, the buff tucked in, the hood piled up.
We continued to trade pulls, passing through one small town and then another, dropping down to a scary railroad crossing and then climbing away from it, zipping over roads more frequently than we had in the far part of the course, chatting now and again but mostly just riding. I kept waiting for the sleep monster to slither out of a yawn and dig its claws into my skull – even going so far as to put my caffeine pills in spot where I could find them if I bonked – but the monster never showed up. The only things that did emerge from the darkness
were a couple riders who’d passed us while we were resting with the live bait. One was bonking badly, and asked for an energy bar. I didn’t have one, but I offered him a couple caffeinated gels. He took them, asking, “How far to the finish?” “Do you really want to know?” “Yes.” I told him, but couldn’t tell if he found relief or oppression in the number. I was glad I didn’t feel that bad, and that Jill apparently didn’t either.
It was after midnight already, maybe 20 miles from the finish but a few minutes of riding from Birchwood, the Bluegill Capital of Wisconsin and the last big town before the finish in Rice Lake. Some volunteers there had offered to put up a rest stop for any racers who were coming through overnight. According to the race director, the amenity was partly charity, partly a way to prevent racers from knocking on Birchwooders’ doors at 3 a.m., begging for warm places to rest, as had happened the previous year, when temperatures had ranged down to 20º below zero. I hadn’t done that, but I had rested way too long at a convenience store in town. Though I neither wanted nor needed to rest as long this year, Jill and I still stopped for a bit.
The volunteers seemed a bit perplexed by us, staring silently as we drank cocoa and beef broth. I tried to eat an oatmeal cookie but couldn’t finish it. Riders and one runner whom we’d recently passed came in to eat and dry their socks.
One rider – the guy who’d asked for the bar a few hours before – left after just a couple minutes, drawing Jill and me back out onto the trail. We caught him almost immediately on a steep up-and-down roller. I chose the wrong gear and had to hike up the far side of the hill while Jill cranked her way up.
From that spot, the course is literally downhill – at maybe negative half a percent grade – for the last seventeen miles, except for a tricky dip at a washed-out culvert near the finish. I don’t think Jill and I said more than seventeen words over those miles, but I did carefully watch my GPS unit, happy to see speeds of 8 and 9 mph. I kept recalculating our finish time, trying to assure myself that Jill would beat the women’s record. By the time we zipped down and up the dip – exactly five miles from the finish – she had the record in hand. We made the last highway crossing and took the left turn onto the straightaway to the finish. Now we just needed to crank our biggest gears past the final new landmarks: a supper club, some driveway crossings, a radio tower, the industrial park, two bridges. Jill pulled up next to me and we decided to cross the finish line side by side. No need to sprint! We rolled over in 21:20 – more than half an hour ahead of the old women’s record.
Exhausted and happy, we collapsed inside the finish line building. I zoned out, then came to and chatted with Jill, race co-director Helen, and a couple other racers and spectators. I’d been dreaming all day of chicken fingers and French fries, but I was satisfied with a slice of pizza and a cup of beer. The new finisher’s hat was nice too.
* Arrowhead 135, 2014-2018; Fat Pursuit 200k in 2014-2015 and 200-miler in 2017; Tuscobia 160, 2016-2018; Actif Epica 120k in 2018.
** I DNF’ed the 2014 Fat Pursuit 200k and the 2017 200-miler.
Another day of snowstorm meant another good ride in the snowstorm, this time a ramble with my friend Michael on the gravel roads south of town. The ride was marvelous: two hours and 20 miles of extremely variable conditions, including a stiff headwind on the way back home. We encountered a bit of everything, from snowy descents and icy climbs
and greasy mud under the snow
to gorgeous tree-lined “trails”
and wildlife oddities like a woodcock in the roadside scrub. What a day.
Expectation, or dread, had built for days here about a big spring blizzard due to arrive on Friday – my birthday – with wind, ice, sleet, and snow. The storm showed up a little late, but by late morning today had started fulfilling the forecast: horizontal snow, clattering ice pellets, a mounting drift in our backyard, a roaring wind, cancelled social plans, and above all gnashing of teeth on Facebook.
It’s been a while – at least a year – since I’ve been able to ride in a real blizzard, so I wasn’t about to waste the opportunity, and luckily both girls had engagements with friends. At one, shivering with excitement, I kitted up and headed over to the Carleton Arboretum (off-limits to fatbikers all winter) for an easy, fun ride in the snow and wind.
And, it turned out, some sleet, which fell for the first half of the ride. But the temperature was comfortable and the wind really only mattered in the open spots. I went slow, taking time to study the treetops for owls, which I am longing to see. I didn’t see any owls, but I did see several red-tailed hawks, including one stalking a red squirrel. I stood and watched for a few minutes, but the hawk couldn’t quite time a swoop to successful nab the squirrel, which eventually scampered into an impenetrable thicket.
Riding on, I admired the gorgeous wintry trees,
looked down at the oxbow in Spring Creek as well as numerous ducks, geese, and two herons
did a little hike-a-bike where the drifted snow was too heavy to pedal
and saw almost no humans – some college kids wandering around, a family sledding, another fatbiker, and a few people downtown at the brewery (including, impressively, a couple who had skied over with their baby and dog!). If this is the last ride of the winter, it might also have been the best one.
New Year’s 2018 arrived at a bad time to make resolutions; I unexpectedly stayed overnight on New Year’s Eve in Rice Lake, Wisconsin, after taking far too long to finish the Tuscobia 160 fatbike race. I was too tired to drive back home on 12/31, as planned, and far too worn out to write up any resolutions, either that day or the next, after getting home in the new year.
Turning 45 today seems, though, like a suitable moment to come up with some resolutions for the next orbit of the sun. So:
Waste less time in the evenings and at night on my phone and iPad.
Spend more time writing stuff that really matters, especially my “book” on fatbike racing, which is slowly coming together but could use some serious attention.
Practice some daily habits that make me happier when I do them but that I often make excuses not to do: it’s too late, I’m too tired, I don’t have time, etc.
Keep up my journal on a more regular basis, ideally at least daily.
Write at least a short blog post – maybe centered on a photo – each day.
Learn how to do two physical things that have eluded me for years:
riding a wheelie on my bike
doing double-unders with a jump rope at the gym.
Go on more rides that are just fun: to see a sight, to visit friends, to simply tool around town.
Read at least two books a month. (I’m within a few pages of finishing two different books right now, and I sure am going to count them for April!)
The Actif Epica race outside Winnipeg was the ideal way to end a very challenging race season – a relatively short ride through some small French-Canadian towns and up into Winnipeg itself. After the Arrowhead, I decided I didn’t have another overnight race in me this winter, so I changed from the 200-kilometer (124-mile) long race to the “classic” 125k (77 mile) race. This was a good decision, allowing me to start and end in daylight and to really enjoy the racecourse.
And what a racecourse! In a word, it was bizarre – or as the French say, “bizarre.” The race started in the tiny town of St. Malo, about 50 miles due south of Winnipeg.
32 cyclists comprised the field in the short race, which started at a very reasonable 7:30 a.m. (that’s 7:30 a.m. in the metric system) outside the town’s charmingly un-fancy hockey arena. After a neutral rollout, we crossed St. Malo Lake, which shook out the field pretty well and ended with one of the only climbs in the race – a 10-foot zip up what might have been a boat launch.
Starting there, the rest of the course consisted of long sections of gravel road linked by short bits of paved highways, of trails for snowmobiles (which the Canadians call “Skidoos,” no matter the actual brand) or, even better, of completely snowed-in roads across farm fields. It was wacky, unlike any of the other fatbike racing I’ve done but not unlike some of the training I’ve done around Northfield – though far, far flatter. The end of the race was memorably different from all that terrain!
The open country – what my friend Minnesota Mark called “the windswept plains of southern Manitoba” – made it easy to see other racers, which allowed a lot of chasing and being chased. We came up on numerous runners who’d started either the long 200k race the night before or the short 125k race an hour before our bike event. I was happy to be able to ride quite a bit with Mark, who has finished the AE a few times (as well as 20-some other fatbike ultras), making him a good guide to the race’s innumerable twists and turns and to its five checkpoints. At several of those checkpoints, I saw my friend Corey; though not a cyclist, he’d wanted to see what fatbike racing was all about, and so had driven me up to Winnipeg for the event. He tracked us over the first part of the course, taking photos like this one at the first CP in St.-Pierre-Jolys.
We’d been told to try the pea soup there, but pea soup doesn’t sound too good at 9:05 a.m., so I ducked in and headed right back back out, yoyoing with a couple other riders whom I’d see all day as we made our way up to the second checkpoint at a “colony” of Hutterites at Crystal Springs. Just before reaching the checkpoint, we rode a couple miles of wonderful wooded trails along the Rat River (a.k.a. la Rivière aux Rats, which is frankly a far better name) as it oxbowed its way north to meet the Red River of the North nearer to Winnipeg. I stopped a little longer at Crystal Springs, which had a real bathroom (no peeing in the ditches during this race! [well, maybe a little]), chocolate-chip cookies, and very talkative Hutterite men, who wanted to tell me all about their colony. I chatted for a bit, but needed to get moving again.
The silent little boys – shirts buttoned up to their collar just like the adult men – held the door for me, and then I rode again with Mark for a while on some windy gravel. The first few miles of the race had woven through stands of trees, but those were behind us now. Houses were few and far between, but many flew a Canadian flag. The cattle farms had a smell that differed from the smell of cattle farms in Minnesota – sweeter, grassier, not as acrid. Under a high sun, the forecasted westerly wind started to show up, making us work hard whenever we angled north and west – which was pretty often.
At one point, the course dumped us onto a snowed-in road between two fields. In Minnesota we’d call it a “minimum maintenance road,” but I don’t know the French translation. Maybe “le chemin de posthole”? Ride for a bit, push for a bit, ride for more, push for more. For a change of pace, tip over in a pillowy drift and get snow down your neck. At the end of the section, I stopped to record the scene. Mark is one of the dots on the horizon; the other is, I think, racer #36, a tough guy who was riding the race on a 26″ city bike. He could haul on the gravel and especially on the pavement roads, but whenever we hit any snow, he slowed and even had to walk sections that Mark and I could ride. I filed this fact away for later, in case he and I were still nearby at the end of the race.
These sections made me extra grateful to be riding my friend Ben’s souped-up race bike. My beloved Buffalo had started acting up just before the race, perhaps suffering from an injury at the Arrowhead. As I commuted home the day before Corey and I would head to Winnipeg, the rear wheel started rubbing the chainstay. Two hours of sweating and swearing over it couldn’t fix the problem, but Ben solved the problems and saved my race by loaning me his own Mukluk, which was definitely the best bike I’ve ever ridden. The carbon rims in particular helped me float over more of the drifting than I could have on my own bike – though I sure missed the Buffalo.
Somewhere after this section, Mark caught me and started rhapsodizing about the pierogies served at the third checkpoint, in the hockey arena in Niverville. I’d never had pierogis before, an error I remedied with a triple serving. When we checked out, the volunteers told us we were in 8th and 9th places – top 10! We had barely gotten back on our bikes before we reached the fourth checkpoint, 11k (7 miles) away in St. Adolphe. Though this leg was short, I felt like we had a headwind for every meter. Mark and I traded pulls over the worst stretch, making the wind a little more tolerable. When we finally reached St. Adolphe, we rode not on streets to the CP but on the dikes that protect the town from the Red River,
and stopped not at a hockey arena but at a curling club. (Next to the door is the bike of racer #36, who reached the CP just before us.)
Curling looks just as fun from the other side of the glass as it does on TV, but why are so many Manitoba hockey arenas and curling clubs in Quonset huts? And can Northfield please build a Quonset hut for a curling club?
Someone – probably Mark – had warned me that the stretch after St. Adolphe would be the hardest of the race, as we would be continuously exposed to the wind. This was definitely the case. Mark and I traded pulls as we went north on the memorably-named Sood Road, then jogged a bit east to Shapansky Road, a freakishly straight and flat road that I’m pretty sure runs all the way to Hudson Bay. (Here it’s the north-south line from St. Germain South.)
The wind here finally went from “hard” to “brutal.” Cutting across us from left to right, it separated Mark and me and slowed me to what could not have been more than 8 mph, which felt like a sad waste of Ben’s carbon machine! Racer #36 dangled in front of me for this entire stretch. I had worried that his skinny tires would help him get away here, but the wind was as bad for him as for me, and for Mark. Another racer later said that the winds had been blowing at 25mph here, which means that the windchill must have been well below zero. Adding to the fun, the sun was so bright that I couldn’t see my computer, and so couldn’t see the goddamn map that would tell me how goddamn long this goddamn section would continue. This was a classic sufferfest: put your head down and just turn the cranks. Every time the pedals make a rotation, you’re closer to getting done with it.
Then suddenly I couldn’t see racer #36 anymore. He’d turned! Huzzah! No more crosswind! Oh, wait. No, he’d turned northwest, going directly into the wind. A minute later, I made the turn too, and found another Actif Epica Special: a dirt “road” almost completely covered in snowdrifts. Someone had recently driven a truck down the road, cutting two ruts through all the drifts, and I aimed for the nearer one. But I had been puttering along so slowly for so long that my aim was way off, and I hit the drift. Stop, lean, bobble, lean more, tip over, already laughing and cursing. I expected Mark to ride up to me right then as I struggled to unclip my boots from my pedals, but no, he was still slogging up Shapansky.
Back on my feet and then back on the bike, I could see that #36 was hiking. I was able to ride, and gradually closed on him as we angled northwest, then north again through more crosswind. He grew from a black dot in the distance to an indistinct human figure, then to a cyclist – helmet, jacket, legs. I was excited to be on the verge of contact after seeing him off in the distance since St. Adolphe.
Then another turn, to the southwest. Mon Dieu! Knowing that Winnipeg was due north of us, I got worried here that we’d taken a wrong turn, but ahead of us I could see a weird low hill. Maybe another dike that would take us north? Here the course drifted in again, the snow cover deepening as we approached the hill. #36 was hiking continuously, and I was trying hard to ride as much as I could to catch up before the hill. But now the drifts turned to a thick crust of snow with a skin of windblown black dirt on top – the most bizarre surface that I’d ever crossed on a fatbike, or rather crossed walking next to a fatbike. The snow was loose under the dirt, far too soft to support the bike or me. I postholed for a good ten minutes, trying to roll the bike along next to me and marveling as the weird cake-like appearance of the snow: a thin layer of black, a thick layer of white, and then far below some brown dirt.
Now I was at the bottom of the hill, with #36 on top of it. A lightbulb went off and I remembered that Mark had mentioned we would ride up and over the huge floodway that protects Winnipeg from the Red River’s spring floods. The hill was actually the eastern wall of the floodway, which – Wikipedia says – was at the time of its construction in the 1960s the second-largest earthmoving project in the world, smaller only than the Panama Canal. Still trailing #36, I rode up and onto the berm, down into the floodway – empty except for some grass and more snowdrifts – then back up onto a secondary berm that ran to a massive control gate. On the other side of the gate, #36 turned west again. Down a street? Where the hell were we?
We were already in Winnipeg. The city apparently has no suburbs; you’re either on the prairie suffering in the wind for your sins or on paved streets, dodging cars and trucks. #36 was gone now, hammering on his city bike over city streets. I dug out my cue sheets and zoomed in on my computer’s map, remembering more advice from Mark: that you had to be careful as the race zigged and zagged over streets and bike trails. I didn’t want to take a wrong turn again, as I had at the Arrowhead in January. There the only dangers had been -30º F temps and wolves; who knows what urban terrors lurked in Winnipeg! I might be force-fed poutine or compelled to learn the words to “O Canada”!
Luckily, the course here was remarkably easy to follow, winding this way and that through the city on the way to the last checkpoint at the University of Manitoba. The sidewalks and trails were fairly busy with civilians running, walking, walking their dogs, even riding bikes. Everyone I encountered gave me a nice smile and a wave, except the dogs. Abruptly, #36 reappeared at the far end of a long straightaway. Knowing that we had the checkpoint and then another half hour of riding before the finish, I didn’t try too hard to catch him, but gradually he drifted back to me. Fittingly I finally caught him at a stoplight where we waited in futility for the light to change. I had definitely never had to wait at a stoplight in a fatbike race. He said he’d finished the race on foot a couple times, but that riding wasn’t easier – “just faster.” Finally we decided to cross against the interminable red, and a few minutes later we reached the last checkpoint.
Another racer was there when we arrived, #37, a guy who’d dropped me after the Crystal Springs checkpoint hours before. He was riding a fatbike with drop handlebars, which struck me as perhaps the ideal machine for this wacky race. Could I bounce out of the checkpoint fast enough to steal two spots? No; as I headed out both #36 and #37 left too. We rode together in some places, apart in others, as we left the university campus, crossed the Red River, and headed north through what my computer said were the last ten miles of the race.
I had no desire to get in front of #36 and #37, since they seemed to know where they were going. #36 said we were nearly to the park where we would drop down onto the river itself. We would have something like 5 kilometers to go from that point. More streets and paths, another bridge over the Red River, and then we hooked into a little park over the river. Pedestrians had worn a path down the steep riverbank onto the ice, and we plunged down, #36 leading me and #37 just behind me.
Amazing. The river was spectacularly wide, and down the middle ran two groomed trails, one cleaned to the bare ice for skaters, the other covered with a thin layer of snow for walkers, runners, and cyclists and quite a few dogs wearing neon booties. Hundreds and hundreds of people were on the river, doing all those things or just hanging out on benches on the median between the lanes. I nosed alongside #36, said I wanted to go a little faster, and headed up the ice trail. My rear wheel slipped here and there on the ice, but the snow provided just enough traction that I could easily pedal at 12, 14, 16 mph – far faster than I usually finish a race!
#37 came up around me, down on his bars and working hard. I hung with him for a while, drafting, then moved up beside him, now ahead of him. I realized that the red flags on the median were marking kilometers. We’d just passed 4, and here came 3 already. My legs were burning. I wanted to see if #37 was still with me, but given the ice underneath and the innumerable pedestrians all around, I couldn’t risk a glance back. Crashing on a perfectly flat part of the race and wiping out a bunch of Canadian kids would not be a good way to finish!
On the bench at kilometer marker 2, a hipster was smoking a joint. A strange thing to smell at the end of a race. I could see a bridge looming ahead, the one that marked the official finish line. The crowds thickened around the 1k marker, and more stuff crowded the ice: some sort of museum exhibit, playground equipment, vendors’ kiosks…
I started seeing little spots of light and wished I could see my heart rate on my computer. My pulse was ridiculously loud in my ears. The bridge came toward me. Throngs of people now. Music. The smell of food. I started looking for a finish line or banner, but no: nothing except the shadow of the bridge on the ice. I rode all the way through the shadow and slowed to a stop. #37 was still coming, but I’d reached the bridge first. 4:07 p.m. – not even nine hours of riding! How humane.
I pedaled slowly toward the ramp that led up from the river to the race HQ at a restaurant complex overlooking the point where the Assiniboine River flowed into the Red. #37 caught up to me as we climbed up to the street level. We wove through the pedestrians and hunted down the race HQ. When we found it, we pulled up and got off our bikes, exchanging well-dones. A little boy sitting nearby looked up at me and asked, “Why is your face covered in ice?” I told him I’d just finished a bike race. Some volunteers came out when they saw us and held the doors so we could roll our bikes inside.
There we got a nice round of applause and our trophies – for me, one for finishing the Actif Epica and another for finishing the Tuscobia, the Arrowhead, and the AE in the same winter and thus entering the “Order of the Hrimthurs.” Sure, why not!
#36 came in a few minutes later, and then Mark. The timekeepers announced our places – Mark in 8th, #36 in 7th, #37 in 6th, and me in 5th. I was amazed and pleased – proof that the good feeling I’d had in the first half of the Arrowhead was no fluke. I hope next winter’s racing is as fun and successful as this winter’s. Only a few months till then!
I think about the Arrowhead constantly, many times a day. It’s been like this for more than five years now, ever since I applied in summer 2013 to race the next winter’s Arrowhead, a fortieth-birthday gift to myself. Maybe I dwell too much on the race – completely voluntary, completely ridiculous, completely gripping.
That winter, my thinking revolved around preparation for and worry over an event that I could imagine doing but had no real way to understand doing. This winter, with four successful Arrowheads behind me and my fifth Arrowhead ahead of me, my thoughts were worry over and excitement for an event that I knew I could do, had done, but that still needed to be done again.
Not all of my thinking about the Arrowhead looks forward to the next race. I also spend a lot of time just remembering the races – before this year’s event, 540 miles and 97 hours of riding (along with healthy amounts of walking and sitting). And I think a lot about the raw fact of having finished the race. My four finishes seem both unreal to me, incidents I watched happen, and tangible, worn like a familiar, comfortable, cherished, and warm piece of clothing.
And yeah, while I have finished the race, a lot of my thinking and remembering runs to other Arrowheaders: riding alongside Charlie in 2014 and Minnesota Mark in 2017, sharing a Red Bull with Wisconsin Mark in 2015, commiserating (in the truest sense) with many nameless racers on the trail every year, trading stories with even more racers at the finish line. The 2018 Arrowhead supplied quite a few more chances to appreciate other racers, one of whom saved my race twice.
In being my fifth Arrowhead, the 2018 race would also be my tenth winter ultra. If I finished, I’d notch not only that fifth Arrowhead finish but my eighth winter-ultra finish. I’m not sure why, in the months leading up to the AH, I was so hung up on getting that fifth-straight finish, but I was, and I was even more eager to get the race under way. Still, I felt calm – a veteran’s calm? – when after months of training and preparation and my best-ever pre-race night’s sleep, I rolled up to the start outside Kerry Arena in International Falls at the trailhead of the snowmobile trails that would take us to the finish line near Tower, 135 miles away.
The rest of the field of bikers hung strangely back, so I nosed the Buffalo’s front wheel right up to the orange spray-paint starting line, not far from one of the arrows pointing – helpfully? mockingly? – down the trail. Braving the -5º F temps, spectators stood on the jagged mounds of snow that lined the start area – natural bleachers. I bantered a bit with some of the other racers near me – Mark, Charly, Ben – and then we went silent for the countdown to the fireworks that came just before the shout to “Release the hounds!” and the sprint off the line.
By the first road crossing, a few hundred meters up the course, the field was already mostly in single file, a string of red blinking lights. A bit later, Tracey Petervary – three time women’s champion – rode up next to me and commented on how pretty the lights looked when lined up that way. T-race’s comment encapsulated two great things about the race: the way you’re constantly surrounded by beauty, and the way you bond with racers over the weirdest stuff. In my eagerness, I almost rode into a racer whose rear blinky light was barely visible and only weakly shining. As I rode past, I told him that I couldn’t see the light from behind. The sun was coming up soon, which would make all the blinkies irrelevant for nine hours or so.
In the semi-dark, I couldn’t see my bike computer to tell how far we’d gone or how fast we were going, but I was feeling great – easily making passes, easily holding wheels, easily maintaining my line. The trail was as hard and fast as I’d ever seen it, which helped a lot, but so too did a solid taper and good rest before the race – and my excitement at racing again. A few more road crossings, long stretches through open swampy areas, and then the left turn at Shelter 1. The only bad physical sensation I’d had so far was an unusually strong urge to pee, so I stopped to address that need. A big group of racers rode past during my break, rabbits to chase.
Checking my computer, I saw that the Buffalo and I had averaged almost 10 mph over the opening hour – ridiculously fast for us. I caught members of that group within a few minutes, as we moved from the open swamps into thicker forest. Coming up behind them, I enjoyed watching their rear tires kick up little clouds of powdery snow. I still felt fantastic nine miles later, two hours into the race, when I reached the crossing of U.S. 53 and zipped over the pavement as logging trucks approached from both directions. I kept waiting for an ache, a pain, a twinge, a pang, but no: nothing but good feelings in my body, the steady feeling of a good bike, and the sizzle-hum of my tires on the cold, fast snow.
I rode for a bit with Jesse, who was insanely tackling the race on a borrowed single-speed fatbike. We chatted about the cold – still -5º – and the fast track. I passed again that racer whose blinky hadn’t been visible back near the start. This time I recognized her and greeted her and mentioned again that her blinky was still invisible. She stopped to fix it, which made me feel a little bad, since the first checkpoint was just ahead: the Gateway General Store at mile 37, roughly four hours into the race for me.
I rolled right through the checkpoint, calling out my race number and then getting back to the trail. Since I was racing in the unsupported category – carrying all my own food and water, waiving the privilege to go into the checkpoints to dry off or warm up – I had no reason to stop, and anyhow I felt so good I didn’t want to stop. While the first leg of the race, from the start to the first checkpoint at Gateway, is almost entirely flat, the second leg includes some rolling terrain and even a few hills that I’ve always had to walk. This year, the rollers felt faster on both sides of their crests, and even the steeper hills let me ride further up them than I recalled from other races. Pushing the Buffalo the rest of the way to the top of those few hills provided a nice respite, a chance to drink from my hydration backpack (Infinit’s Go Far mix, which I highly recommend) and chew a few calories. KitKats, Reese’s peanut butter cups, salted cashews, Fritos, gels, Clif bars.
I could see my computer clearly in the midday sun, and I could see that everything was going great: a high average speed, a decently low heart rate, the miles ticking by. I stopped at the halfway point of the race – mile 67.5 – to take a photo, but my phone died, so I had to just look around. The trail cut through a swamp, but behind and further ahead were dense stands of evergreens, rising in the distance up one of the ridges that the trail would climb. On the far side of that ridge a few miles later, the trail started dropping toward Elephant Lake, which the race crossed on the way to the second checkpoint, at Melgeorges resort, at about mile 72. Popping out on the ice just before 3 p.m., I could see I was on pace to set a big personal-best time. On the wide-open lake, I could also see that I couldn’t see many bike tracks ahead of me. Even if many racers were riding in each others’ tracks, I estimated that no more than 20 riders were in front of me. Not a bad spot to occupy going into the second checkpoint and then out into the hardest leg of the race.
I came off the lake a few minutes later, greeted a few spectators including my friend Bill, who’d driven me up to the race and enjoyed soaking up the event, and then followed the familiar twisty singletrack trail over to the checkpoint. I’d never reached Melgeorges so early in the race, with the sun so high. The cabins looked, frankly, strange in the daylight. At the top of the steps to the checkpoint cabin, I knocked on the door. A volunteer came over. “Welcome to Melgeorges! Racer 144 checking in at 3:04. Come on in!” I told him I was racing unsupported and couldn’t come in, but that I’d take a couple minutes outside to sort out my food and gear before leaving. He followed me back down the steps and we chatted as I threw away food wrappers and other garbage and reloaded my bags with different stuff to eat. “Okay, I’m heading out.” He wrote the time down and then said, “You’re ninth right now.”
I was shocked. I could tell from the tracks on the trail that not many other racers were in front of me, but only eight? I gave a whoop and headed out of the parking lot, relishing the glow of the high mid-afternoon sunlight on the trees. Each time I’ve left the Melgeorges checkpoint in my previous Arrowheads – last year slightly later in the afternoon, one year at dusk, and two years in the pitch black of early evening – I’d felt a tightness in my stomach. Worry about the innumerable hills, worry about the inescapable cold, worry about the upcoming long night. Worry and some fear about all those certainties and other possibilities: injuring myself in a crash, breaking my bike, getting sick, meeting wolves.
This time, though, I was elated, feeling strong, energized, happy, and eager to hit the hills. I carefully took the turns leading to the spur trail that reconnected with the Arrowhead Trail itself, pedaling hard to warm up again. The trail was badly churned by snowmobiles, so I could only see one or two bike tracks, but no matter. I knew this tricky stretch. Here’s the trail again. Bend left onto fresh track and keep going. Next stop, the third checkpoint, 39 miles down the trail but only 24 miles from the finish.
I rode easily and steadily over some manageable rollers, ups and downs lined by stands of pine, birches, firs, all cinematically lit by the sun to my left. A few tracts of the forest had been clear cut, leaving ugly open spaces and piles of slash. My computer read +5º F, the highest temp I’d seen so far. A few hits of hydration drink, a gel. Where was that first big challenge that comes after Melgeorges – the steep descent, a tricky bridge, and then a monster uphill? Must be up here soon. Around this corner, or this one. Can’t be far.
Suddenly two riders come toward me. Why are they going the wrong way on the course? They stop. #162 says, with the matter of fact tone of the colossally correct, “You’re going the wrong way, man. We’re two miles from Melgeorges. You must have missed the turn after the checkpoint.”
Like a row of icicles all falling from the eaves at the same time, the realization of my error crashes down on me. I hadn’t reached that goddamn hill because I was going the wrong goddamn way. I spit out a stream of expletives. Rider #92 says, in a wonderfully helpful way, “Well, now you can have a second grilled cheese at Melgeorges!” I curse some more and tell him that, actually, no, since I’m racing unsuppported I will instead have no grilled cheeses for a second time.
Fired up with anger at myself, I surge away from them. For a minute, I wonder about the right thing to do here – ride back to Melgeorges and check in and out again? Ride back to but straight through the checkpoint? Simply ride the trail back to the race course? Would I get disqualified for cutting the course? With the certainty of the colossally incorrect, I told myself that no, that wouldn’t happen since I had already covered the stretch I was supposed to ride! No need to do it again.
I cruised back over the trails that I had just ridden, seeing the same trees on the other side of the track. Down the hills I’d gone up, up the hills I’d gone down. Now someone else was coming toward me! What the hell! He pulled up. “Am I going the wrong way?” he asked. I told him he was, that I’d taken the wrong turn and was getting back to the course. He said he’d followed my track and then started wondering if he was off course. He recognized me from another race and introduced himself. Joe and Christopher, brothers in error. He turned himself around and we covered the last few miles back to the course, now laughing about the craziness of this episode.
When we reached the corner that I and then he had taken wrong, I saw that the proper turn was very clearly marked with directional signs and laced with what looked like a billion tire tracks. Certainly, now, many more tracks than the eight that had been in front of me when I left Melgeorges. I checked my computer’s mileage against my cue card and saw that I’d added 11 bonus miles to my ride. Probably 90 minutes or even two hours of riding. Of energy. Of calories. Of sunlight.
But now I was back on the course, and the finish line was getting closer with every pedal stroke again. I’d corrected my error. The interlude had covered great trail in great conditions. And now it was literally behind me. In just a few turns of the cranks, Joe and I reached that steep descent, the tricky bridge, the monster uphill. We walked most of the climb, and at the top I looked back: sure enough the valley was gorgeous in what was now the last light of the day. We climbed back on our bikes and resumed. The pale blue sky darkened to black and stars appeared, one for every tree. I turned on my headlamp, lighting up Joe from well behind him.
We were about twelve hours and 85 miles into the race now. Only the trees knew how many more hours we would need to finish, but the finish line was less than 50 miles away. A hard 50 miles, sure, but I still didn’t feel like I was working too hard, much less suffering. I kept wondering when the really bad hills were coming, remembering from other years what seemed like hours of unbroken hike-a-bike up and even down savagely jagged hills. Though my legs were no longer responding the same way they had to the afternoon’s hills, and my walking was getting more labored, I could still get on the Buffalo and feel good or even great. We cruised over the occasional flat spots, rode the steep descents easily, and zoomed as far up the ascents as we could. About my only trouble was finding easy moments to eat and drink, so somewhere in this stretch I stopped with Joe at one of the trailside shelters to rest for a few minutes, sitting on the dirt floor, drinking some water, eating some food. The racer whom I had told about her bad blinky joined us for a bit. The light still wasn’t flashing visibly, which bugged me since we were in full dark and no one could say when a snowmobile might roar up behind us. I didn’t say anything this time, though. Too tired. Both she and Joe headed off before I was ready to go, and both wound up finishing well ahead of me, she as the women’s champion.
Now alone in the woods, I could feel that the temperature had fallen down into the negative teens. All day long I’d been unzipping and rezipping my jackets, pulling up and down my neck warmer and hoods, opening and closing the vents on my pants. In the nighttime chill, I battened down all the hatches: zippers up, hoods up, face covered as much as possible. I even swapped out the hat I’d been wearing all day – and which I realized with dismay had been frozen to my head – for my down beanie, an item that feels like a secret weapon against the cold.
Adjusting all my gear there on the trail – trees to the left and right; a narrow snowmobile trail ahead, underneath, and behind; the starry black sky above – made me feel ready for the cold and the hills over the twenty or so miles between wherever I was and the third checkpoint. In retrospect I know I was ready because the next many hours of riding and walking passed easily even when I was going slow. I just worked at the hills and the miles. The moon, nearly full, was so bright that it cast deep shadows across the trail. I had to slow down to make sure that a shadow wasn’t a divot in the snow or a tree branch fallen on the trail. The shadows were always just shadows. Sometimes when I looked up, the moon was shrouded by a halo. Other times it hung there alone, a sliver away from fullness. 8 p.m., mile 91, 44 miles to go. 9 p.m., mile 95, 40 miles to go. 10 p.m., mile 99, 36 miles to go. 11 p.m., mile 101, 34 miles to go. Ugh: a 2 mph average over the previous hour. Midnight, mile 104, 31 miles to go.
But now something was amiss. Given how infrequently and briefly I actually pedaled the Buffalo in this hilly section, I hadn’t had much chance to notice a squirrelly feeling in the handling. On one rare stretch of level ground, though, I could tell that one of my tires had lost some air. I squished the front. Nope, solid. I squished the back. Yep, very soft. Not quite flat but getting there. Maybe just a slow leak, though. I laid the Buffalo down in the snow and dug out my pump. Carefully carefully because it was far too cold to take off my gloves, I undid the valve cap and opened the valve, then threaded the pump head onto the valve. I pumped thirty or fifty times and felt the tire – better. More solid. Undo the pump head, close the valve, replace the cap, stow the pump, get back on the bike.
Up and down a hill or two, over another level stretch. The squirrelly feeling again already. I looked at my bike computer. Just after midnight, -25º F. At least there is no wind, I pointed out to myself. I guess it was time to change a tire. I’d never flatted in a winter race, and only ever had one minor mechanical problem – a broken chain that I fixed quickly and easily while talking with a snowmobile-trail groomer outside West Yellowstone, Montana. Maybe this would go as easily!
I laid the bike down again, dug out the pump again, and unpacked my seat bag to find my spare tubes. I rehearsed everything in my head before doing it. Unwrap the tube and lay it in the snow. Lift the bike back up and unwind the rear wheel’s quick-release bolt. Wiggle the wheel out of the dropouts, away from the cassette, free of the chain. Lay the crippled bike back down. Lay the tire down. Undo the valve cap. Open the valve. Bleed out what little air is inside. Press down opposite sides of the tire to break the bead on the rim. Run my fingers under the bead to unseat the tire on one side. The rim is cold as hell, even though my glove. Undo the locking nut on the valve. Son of a bitch. I can’t do this with my gloves. Dig out my multitool. The flap on the leather case barely bends. I open the tool to the pliers. The steel is cold as hell, even through my glove. Pinch the nut and loosen it, then spin it off the valve. Push the valve through the rim. Pull the bad tube out of the tire and throw it angrily away from me.
Halfway done with the process. I stand up, then kneel in the snow again. My knees are cold as hell, just two thin layers of clothing from the -25º snow. Stuff the new tube into the tire, trying to keep it from getting twisted and folded. Guide the valve through the hole in the rim. Run the nut down onto the valve as far as possible. Reseat the tire in the rim. The rim is cold as hell, even though my glove. Open the valve. Thread the pump head onto the valve. Pump pump pump till the tire is firm. Yes! Air! It’s solid. Carefully, with dead fingers, unthread the pump head from the valve. The valve core comes out with the pump head and all the air escapes from the tube in an evil hissing rush. Son of a…
With the pliers, extract the valve core from the pump head. Don’t fucking bend the core! Thread it back into the valve body, tightening it as far as possible. Thread the pump head onto the valve. Pump pump pump till the tire is firm. This now takes minutes; my right arm aches. I’m shivering. Carefully, with even deader fingers, unthread the pump head from the valve. All the air rushes out again.
Breathe deeply. Find something to eat. Eat it. Repeat it all again. With neurosurgical care, unthread the pump head from the valve. The core comes out again and all the air escapes again. It’s now been, what, thirty minutes? More? I’m shaking. A rider or two goes by. If they say something, I don’t hear it, and I don’t say anything to them. I walk around my workshop, shining my headlamp on my useless bike, the gear I’d unpacked from my seat bag, the trees all around.
Take four. Kneel at the wheel. A posture of prayer and submission. I’m barely holding the pump now, but I struggle through the process again and come to the same deflating result. A couple more racers go by. Time for me to decide what to do. Try my other tube? Maybe its valve core won’t come out so easily. Put the wheel back on, flat tire and all, and walk the bike to the third checkpoint? Try to fix everything there, where at least there’s company and a fire? Try to inflate this tube one more time?
I decide to do that, since it’s the easiest of the options. Shaking with cold, I try for a fifth time. A fifth failure. More riders go by. Then one stops. “You need help? A flat?” I look up. It’s rider #162, the guy who corrected my wrong turn. Rider #92 is right there with him. “Yeah. I have everything here but my pump keeps pulling out the valve core.” I’m amazed he can understand me given how bad my teeth must be chattering. #162 digs out his pump – the same one I have. I’m not sure if we’re talking to each other now, but he takes my multitool and tightens the hell out of the valve core, then attaches his pump. He gives it a few pumps before handing it to me. I pump a few times, amazed at how easily his works compared to mine. I tell him this; he says that he uses a silicone spray to keep the rubber components flexible, which makes them work better. When the tire is at the right pressure, he carefully unthreads the pump head. The valve core stays in place. All the air rushes out of my lungs in relief.
As I close the valve and put the valve cap back on, he packs up again, then comes back over to hold the Buffalo in place while I get the wheel back on. This takes the usual jimmying plus extra jimmying due to the fact that my whole right hand feels like a block of ice, but we get the wheel back in place. The Buffalo is ready to roll again. #92 says he’s cold, that he needs to get moving. He soft-pedals away. I thank #162 for what I hope is the hundredth time. He gets back on his bike and heads up the trail.
I had been mostly stationary for more than an hour in the deep cold, leaving me exhausted, but I knew as their blinkies disappeared up the trail that I needed to get moving, to get to the third checkpoint, where I could rest and eat and drink. I packed up my stuff quickly, wrapping the bad tube around my seat bag, then got on the Buffalo and started pedaling. My knees were stiff, cold, achy. My right hand felt distant, as if a new length of forearm had pushed it further away from my body. Sending commands down that long arm into that frozen hand did cause the thumb to press the shifter levers, though, so I knew that the hand still worked in a technical sense. The third checkpoint, sponsored by Surly bikes, was about four miles away – a rudimentary trailside arrangement of a heated teepee, a table, and a campfire.
I have no memory of riding that stretch, but it took a bit over an hour – a slow speed but a riding speed, not a walking one. When I reached the Surly checkpoint, I knew I’d finish my fifth Arrowhead, thanks now twice to racer #162. I checked in at 2:24 a.m., a truly horrible hour to be awake, riding a bike but also a truly wonderful time to be alive, riding a bike. A few racers left the checkpoint in my hour there. A few others arrived and headed back out, including my friend Helen, who was on her way to becoming the first woman to earn the award for racers who complete the Arrowhead in all three disciplines: cycling, running, and skiing. She didn’t even sit down in the half-hour she was at the checkpoint. Soon after she headed out, I decided I was ready to go too, having had a little more food and used the fire to melt some snow to drink, pine needles and all. I also made damn sure to throw away the tube that had caused so much trouble.
After the third checkpoint, the course flattens and straightens out, somewhat mirroring the first leg to Gateway. First, though, racers have to ascend the seemingly longest and steepest climb on the course, Wakemup Hill. I cannot bike it, but this year the walk to the top wasn’t too bad, and ended with the usual amazing view of the lakey forests to the east. The descent off Wakemup is always scary, but then the trail starts its flat, straight runs toward the finish. At the bottom of the hill I knew the finish line was only 25 miles away – an easy ride on most days, a little tougher after 21 hours of racing and those 11 bonus miles.
I don’t remember much of those 25 miles. Before Melgeorges, I’d been looking forward to this finishing leg, which then I hoped to hammer. I was more a nail now, though. I know several racers, including #162 and #92, passed me on this stretch, and made far better time than I did, finishing more than an hour ahead of me. I know I walked quite a bit, both to give my legs a break and to keep from riding off the trail, which I nonetheless did a couple times. I wished I had some company, like the year before, but I was also glad no one could see me weaving across the trail, gagging on a Clif bar, dry-swallowing two caffeine pills, falling asleep standing up. Magically the trail continued to roll underneath the Buffalo, and magically the sun came up right on schedule around 8, lighting the swamps and fields. Subtracting my bonus miles from the total on my computer, I could see that at dawn, I had ten miles to go. I played one of my favorite mind games, convincing myself that even one pedal stroke past mile 125 (or 136) meant that I now had only a single-digit number of miles to go. 3 mph, 4 mph, 5 mph if I stood up on the pedals – even those pathetic speeds wore away the remaining miles. I started crossing roads more frequently, a sure sign of civilization or at least of Tower, Minnesota.
Five miles to go. Four. Three, and now onto the Bois Forte Reservation. I was incredibly thirsty and hungry. I saw the familiar sights of these last miles: the sign directing snowmobilers to Fortune Bay casino, the drooping snow fences separating the churned-up snowmobile trails from thin new-growth woods, a building tucked into those trees. Staring up and to the right, I finally saw the roofline of the casino above the trees. Newer, better snow fencing lined the trail now. As it always does, the finish-line banner appeared, disappeared, and reappeared for good, on top of a little rise. Just as I started to wonder if I could ride the rise, I rode up it and over the last yards of the course, over the finish line. Finish number 5 in 26 hours and 37 minutes, good for 32nd place. 686 miles and now almost 124 hours on the Arrowhead trail.
I remember little of the next few minutes. I think I toppled off my bike, but somehow I got back up before too long. Along with my friend Bill, my sister-in-law and brother-in-law were there, having come over from Ely to see me finish. Somehow Jay Petervary, the men’s champion in a near-record time, wound up walking my bike inside. In the recovery room, I peeled off my layers and used a bowl of hot water to melt off my icebeard. My cheeks, upper lip, and right fingers were frostbit – the fingers, by the flat tire ordeal. No matter: my finisher’s hat fit my head and the finisher’s trophy fit in my hands.
Twenty-four hours from now, I should be fairly far down the Arrowhead course, well into my attempt to finish for the fifth time. The race starts in International Falls at 7 a.m. Central time on Monday, January 29. As usual, the race can be followed through Trackleaders, though also as usual not everyone is carrying a tracking device, so it’s hard to tell exactly who’s winning! The Arrowhead’s Facebook page should provide updates on the winners and maybe on other finishers.
I woke up on Saturday with a nervous flutter in my stomach, thinking about an anxiety dream I’d had overnight in which I was racing, but stopping frequently to retrieve weird items from the bag on the front of my bike. I tamped down my nerves by finishing my preparations: packing my clothes, buying a last few food items, testing my stove, and of course checking the forecast. It felt good to check off all the items on my to-do list!
Conditions appear to be good for a fast year, with temps of about -10º F at the start of the race, about +5º F through the afternoon of the first day, and then -10º F or so again overnight into Tuesday, by which time I hope to be near the finish line at Fortune Bay Casino in Tower. This Arrowhead will be my tenth winter ultra race, and if I finish, it’ll be my eighth finish in those ten events. Beyond my goal of simply finishing again, I would love to be able to beat my average time, 24:19.
I had hoped for a a 24-hour finish at Tuscobia 160 in December, though, too, and missed it by 9 hours! I chalked that up partly to a lack of bike fitness (now, far less a concern!) and partly to the extreme cold, which led me to spend a ridiculous amount of time at the checkpoints. I can’t idle at the checkpoints at the Arrowhead, though, as I’m racing in the unsupported category, which means that I have to carry all my own food and drink and that I can’t go into any of the checkpoints to rest or warm up. I finished unsupported last year, but in far warmer conditions.
I’m not worried about getting too cold, since it’s surprisingly easy to stay warm even at -10º (or maybe not surprisingly, having logged about 500 miles of racing at 0º F or lower), but I do need to be careful about food and drink. I’m carrying about 8,000 calories with me. This should be far more than I can actually consume at a rate of 200 calories an hour, but I know from experience that I need a wide variety of stuff to eat. In addition to about 160 ounces of a high-calorie energy drink, then, I’m bringing candy bars, energy gels, corn chips, cashews, oatmeal-peanut butter bars, pepperoni, and even some soup that I can prepare on my stove. I anticipate needing to stop at least a few times to boil some snow into water, as the low temperatures might slushify or even freeze the spare reservoir of nutrition drink I’ll carry in my seatbag. I’m pretty sure that the drink will defrost once I get it into my backpack, but in the meantime I may need to drink some fresh, pure northwoods snow!
Beyond these considerations of food and drink, I’m feeling ready for the challenge. I lost eight pounds after the Tuscobia and haven’t gained them back yet, so I’ll be eight pounds lighter on the Arrowhead trail than I was last year! More seriously, I am very confident in my kit (all the same clothes I’ve used successfully for three straight winters now), my gear (all the equipment that I’ve also been using for years), and especially my bike, which has not failed me yet! Here’s to 135 more miles in the snowy woods with the Buffalo.
Monday, January 22, is the start of the last week before the fourteenth annual Arrowhead 135. This year’s race will be my fifth. So far I’ve completed all four of the Arrowheads I’ve entered, and I hope to earn finish number five this year.
Five years is half a decade, which seems like a long time to be invested in this event. As I finish my preparation for the 2018 race (checking the forecast, drinking a lot of water, checking the forecast, packing my gear, checking the forecast, getting good sleep), I am thinking about how naïve and lucky I was in 2014, my rookie year, when the race was run in -20° temperatures. I did the only thing I’m good at – not giving up – and finished seventh in 29:09.
That race hooked me on fatbike racing, and I’ve since raced in eight more long-distance fatbike races: three more Arrowheads (finishing each one faster than that first), three Fat Pursuits (one finish, two DNFs), and two Tuscobias (two finishes). At this year’s Tuscobia, I accumulated my 1,108th mile and 247th hour of fatbike ultra racing.
As those totals (and the many, many more miles and hours of training that lie underneath them) suggest, the winter ultras have become a very important part of my life. The races themselves are highlights of the last five years, and really of my current life. Racing has taken me to some amazing and beautiful and scary places, both literal (Mount Two Top outside West Yellowstone, Montana, or the endless midnight-forest hills before the third checkpoint at the Arrowhead) and figurative (the mind-bent existence of racing for 20, 30, 50 hours straight). The work of getting and staying ready for the races has become permanent – a way of living, I guess. Some of the people I’ve met at the races are now among my closest friends, and many more are great folks I enjoy knowing. (A few, I could do without!) And I probably cherish my fatbike, the Buffalo, more than any other possession I’ve ever had.
With seven days to go till the start of the 2018 Arrowhead, then, I’m reflecting on all this and trying to recapture some of the beginner’s mind that I didn’t know I had in 2014. I want to approach this race with less expectation than the last few, when I’ve aimed for particular results; some came to pass, some didn’t. Too, I want to approach this race with more gratitude than usual: gratitude for race officials and volunteers who stage these crazy events under very trying circumstances, for the fellow racers who make the training and competing fun even when it isn’t, for a body and mind that (partly by accident, partly by intention) match up well with the demands of the events, for a family that lets me engage in this pursuit, for non-racing friends who seem to enjoy following the events online, and yeah for that gorgeous bike.
This year, I’m racing the Arrowhead in the “unsupported” category again, meaning that I can’t use any of the services at the three race checkpoints (shelter, warmth, water, food). I tackled the race this way last year and everything went (mostly) fine. With colder temperatures forecast this year than last, staying hydrated will be a bigger task, since my spare water might freeze, but I’ll carry a lot to drink and be prepared to melt snow if needed. Having competed successfully in three very cold races, my kit and body should be fine at temperatures around 0° F. Even writing this out makes me feel more comfortable with the challenge, and eager to get after it again! Now it’s just the wait until the fireworks at the start at 7 a.m. on Monday the 29th.
Last weekend’s Tuscobia winter ultra in central Wisconsin was a tough event, a solid challenge, and, after 33 hours of racing, a satisfying accomplishment – 9th place out of 14 finishers (and 34 starters).
A week out from the start of the 160-mile bike race, I knew that I lacked the fitness to go fast. The night before the race, I could see that the conditions were going to be cold, slow, and demanding. The forecast called for temperatures below 0º F during the entire weekend of the race, though not for much wind (thank the goddess!) and no snow (too cold!).
Since I could not do anything to improve either my condition or the conditions, I prepared for a long ride from Rice Lake to Park Falls and back, packing extra food and clothes and making my usual decision to not give up unless I was in danger. I respected but didn’t fear the temperatures, having thrived in two other cold races: my first Arrowhead in 2014 and last winter’s Fat Pursuit. I’d finished that Arrowhead in 7th place and raced well through the cold of the FP, so I figured I could handle what the Tuscobia was offering.
The start at 6:00 a.m. on Saturday was, as promised, cold as hell – around -15º F – but welcome, too. Once the 30-some bikers in the 160-mile race started rolling north out of Rice Lake along the spur to the Tuscobia State Trail, which runs 76 miles to Park Falls, I warmed up quickly and easily, even unzipping my outer layer within a few miles. As always in these races, the first miles are marked with numerous racers stopping to adjust clothes, to eat or drink, to tweak their bikes or gear, or just to wonder why the hell we were out there. I soon made the turn off the spur and onto the Tuscobia trail proper.
A short jaunt on the trail the day before had been my first real ride on snow all season, but all the usual feelings came back right away: how to read the snow and find the best surface, how to hold the narrow line along the shoulder of trail, how to steer through loose snow, how to gauge whether my tires were at the right pressure for the snow. I got lucky there: I had found a good pressure and wound up not needing to make another adjustment.
I ate and drank as needed, though I made the rookie error of letting the hose to my hydration reservoir freeze, requiring me to bury it deeper into my clothes so it would defrost. I had a HydroFlask full of hot water, though, so I didn’t have to skimp on fluids while the hose thawed. Strangely, I did feel sleepy just after the sun came up, a moment in a race when I usually feel energized. I stopped and drank half a slushy Red Bull – only half because even as I drank, the other half froze solid.
Other riders criticize the Tuscobia for being “boring” or “uninteresting,” and while I can agree that Tuscobia doesn’t offer the mountains of the Fat Pursuit in Idaho or the rolling forests of the Arrowhead 135 in northern Minnesota, I love the simplicity of the straight, flat course, a rails-to-trails corridor. You can see up the trail for seeming ever, and breaks in the routine leap out at you: snowmobilers (few and far between in the frigid weather), intersections with roads and other trails, some farms and a few towns (a rarity in fatbike races), the occasional dip in the flatness, and, yes, some beautiful views, like this hoarfrosted swamp about halfway to the first checkpoint:
(Thanks to fellow racer James Kiffmeyer for the photo.)
One strange aspect of the race this year was the lack of animals, even in open spots like this. I saw a few juncos in one town and a big lazy bald eagle soaring near the Chippewa River, a wide black stream that the race crosses not far before the first checkpoint, a stop around mile 45 in Ojibwa Park near the obnoxiously well-named town of Winter. The race actually passes through Ojibwa twice: once on the way out and once on the way back at mile 115, after the turnaround checkpoint in Park Falls at mile 80. I had hoped and planned to spend less than one total hour in the three checkpoints, but this plan evaporated like sweat on race day.
As I approached Ojibwa around noon, after six hours of solid riding, I knew I’d need to stop there long enough to completely warm up and dry out. I was already well off my 2016 race pace and I still hadn’t seen a temperature above zero, so I had no reasons to skimp on rest. I wound up spending 50 minutes there, long enough to dry my outer clothes, to warm up, and to eat about a quart of soup.
I admit: I did not enjoy the first few minutes back outside after the warmth of the checkpoint. Though now “only” zero or so, the air felt solid, an invisible block of ice. I pedaled hard up the track back to the trail and then toward Park Falls, trying to warm up. A runner – just out for a jog, not a racer – came toward me, and she gave me a big wave and “Way to go!” as we met. Her braids were tipped with frost. The encouragement settled me back down for the haul to Park Falls.
One interesting and even fun aspect of Tuscobia is that the event is actually six overlapping races: a big group of runners and skiers start the full 160-mile course on Friday morning, 24 hours before the full-distance bikers start; most of them are on the second leg of the course by the time the full-distance bikers start on Saturday morning. And a few hours after we start rolling, an even bigger group of bikers, runners, and skiers start an 80-mile race in Park Falls. The leaders of the 80-mile bike race hit Ojibwa as I was preparing to leave, and from there all the way to Park Falls, I encountered riders and runners (but only one skier!) every few minutes. It was fun to call out encouragement to them and to greet the few I could recognize, like my friends Mark and Tim. I even started to see some of the 160-mile riders on the way back home, including my pal Ben Doom, who dominated the race to win by nearly an hour. He was charging when I saw him, out of the saddle, but still had the energy to give me a shout and hold out a hand for a high five.
The closer I got to Park Falls, though, the less happy the racers looked, though, and around dusk, with the town’s skyglow in the distance, I met a few runners who were out-and-out disgusted. I helped one woman retrieve a mitten she’d dropped and commiserated about the cold with another, but tried to keep my own feelings about the conditions to myself.
I had yet to feel cold, apart from a couple moments when I’d stopped for a nutrition or nature break and the frigid air had wrapped around me like a frozen blanket. Each time, getting myself back underway warmed up everything again, even my hands, which – apart from my face, coated in iced-over whiskers – were the only parts of my body that really got chilled, and then only when I had to take them out of the big, warm pogies on my handlebars. Overall, I was comfortable and happy, pedaling steadily, joggling my fingers and toes to keep them warm, eating or drinking as needed, enjoying the view up the trail.
I did think a lot about why this kind of racing attracts me, when it breaks some who also love it and of course repels so many others. Looking down the snowy trail, I talked to myself about this. Having done eight winter ultra races before the Tuscobia, I was pretty sure that I have some sort of physiological advantage: my body runs hot, keeping me from getting as cold as other people, and functions well while cold. Maybe this is the genetic endowment of generations of Northern European forebears, a result of my childhood in a snowy, cold place, or just a freak thing.
I also think I also have some sort of psychological advantage: I don’t mind being cold when I am cold, and I like the challenge of figuring out how to get warm again, or to function while cold. I hesitate to use the word toughness, since I think that it’s really more a willingness to adjust to the cold, but I do challenge myself by asking – as I did pedaling down the Tuscobia trail – whether or not I was going to be tougher than the cold.
And then there’s an aesthetic component, too: I think that winter is beautiful, and best enjoyed by being out in it, ideally for long periods. Ultras are the best way I’ve found so far to immerse myself in winter and to see if I can handle its challenges.
Dusk was one of those challenges. The sun setting behind me seemed to slow me down, making it a little harder to get to Park Falls. More than once in the last ten miles to the turnaround, I mistook a road crossing or a lit-up house in the woods for town (and once, a tall evergreen for the town water tower), but I really did reach the trailhead around 7 p.m. – 13 hours into the race. A few turns on the city streets brought me to the checkpoint, at the nice little Park Falls Gastropub in downtown P.F.
Volunteers there set me up with food and drink, which I ingested while chatting with two civilian customers who could not quite understand what the race was all about. They seemed confused by the fact that no cash prizes were on offer. I didn’t mention that the main “prize” for finishing is a hat.
After I finished my food, I broke away from them to go up to the racers’ lounge, where I could rest a bit more and dry my gear. While draping my stuff over a chair in front of a tiny little old space heater, I saw that my friend Tom was there too. He and I had ridden together for almost all of my first Tuscobia, so we knew we were compatible and agreed to head out together. Though I enjoy riding alone, I thought the company would be nice, especially through the darkest and coldest overnight stretch of the race.
While my outer layers slowly dried in front of the underpowered heater, I armored up for the night: new compression socks, new wool socks, second baselayer tights and top, a dry buff. I felt unpleasantly plump and overheated while we finished preparing to head out, but I hoped they’d provide the extra warmth I’d need overnight. After a bit over two hours at the checkpoint, I headed out, Tom right behind me.
I was a little scared as we left the checkpoint. My GPS computer showed a temperature that was as low as anything I’d seen so far in the race, and of course the overnight temps would go lower. And while I enjoy riding at night, the cold made the prospect of riding for nine hours in the blackness seem more daunting than usual. The big warm-seeming orange moon hanging in the sky behind us didn’t help, nor did hearing creaks and ticks from my bike, the Buffalo, which had so far run flawlessly. The deep cold slowed the action of my brakes and shifter, making me worry about a breakdown. How could I handle a broken chain at twenty below? I decided I’d handle it carefully. Luckily, I had no mechanicals at all. The Buffalo loves the cold.
Then there were the mileposts on the left edge of the trail. Not every mile had one, but enough did that they both enticed and oppressed: 76 miles to go, 75 miles to go, 74… I had to keep adding the additional four miles for the spur back to Rice Lake and to do the mental math to put the race and our effort in context. At 25 miles, the afternoon before, the race had turned to “only” the distance of the Arrowhead – 135 miles. Just before the Ojibwa checkpoint, the distance had been a double metric century – 200 kilometers or 124 miles. Somewhere between Ojibwa and Park Falls, at 60 miles, the race had become a regular century – 100 miles. As we worked our way to Ojibwa for the second time, we reached the 62-miles-to-go marker – a metric century or 100k.
Tom and I stopped probably once an hour to eat and drink, to break the monotony or warm the extremities by walking for a minute or two, to pee (never have I needed so many nature breaks in a race!), or to just stand and talk for a minute. Once I stopped because I was falling asleep on my bike. When I told Tom that I was feeling really tired, he offered me two caffeine pills. Feeling like a junkie, I accepted them and was rewarded about fifteen minutes later by a magical surge of warmth and energy. I’ll definitely carry my own caffeine pills in future races.
Regardless of the reason, we could never stop for long: the -20º temperatures gripped us instantly and had to be endured for the time needed to unzip and rezip, to tear open a peanut butter cup and stow the wrapper, to swallow a mouthful of water. I’d need ten minutes of hard riding to warm up from each minute-long stop. Every now and then, but less often that I expected, we came on another racer. “You good? Need anything? Keep it up.” We talked a little bit to each other too, but I am not a chatty rider, so we mostly rode in silence. And anyhow my beard had iced up so thoroughly by midnight that I could barely open my mouth wide enough to speak. From our spot on the trail, we could only see a high strip of black sky, but even that ribbon contained thousands of bright stars.
We did talk about what to do at Ojibwa. As much as I would have liked to get in and out quickly, I knew I felt tired and hungry enough to need a real break. How about an hour of sitting down and of not pedaling and of eating and drinking new stuff? Tom thought this sounded fine too, so when around 3:30 a.m. the checkpoint sign appeared ahead of me on the trail – looking at first like a car parked on the trail – we turned eagerly. Inside, we set our clothes to warm by the fire, ate some of the junk food piled on the table, refilled our backpack reservoirs and water bottles, and then accidentally fell asleep. I dunno how long we slept, but when I came to, almost everyone else was asleep too – racers, volunteers, even the race director.
Tom woke up a minute later and we got ourselves moving. While he tended to some last-minute tasks, I visited the restroom, where the toilet seat was rimmed with icicles. My bike computer showed a temperature of -25º as climbed back on the bike at 6:30 a.m. for the last 45 miles of the race. Less than a half century! An easy afternoon’s ride under normal circumstances.
Thinking Tom was ready too I sprinted back toward the trail, out of my saddle and working hard to build speed and heat. When I looked back a few minutes later, expecting to see Tom right behind me, I saw nothing. I soft-pedaled a bit to see if he’d appear, but even that decrease in effort let the chill creep through my clothes. Get back on the pedals, trying to make progress but still let Tom catch up from wherever he was.
Then all of a sudden his lights washed over me from behind. I apologized for dropping him, trying to explain that I thought I’d seen him on his bike as climbed on mine. I think I heard him say that he hadn’t quite been ready, but that he hadn’t been worried or mad either. And at any rate now we were back together for the duration. The sun rose behind us, which helped dispel some of my fatigue and even started pushing the temperature up toward zero.
In the daylight – New Year’s Eve! – I recognized some of the same landmarks I had seen the day before. The Chippewa River crossing, with steam rising off the water. A smaller river that ran alongside the trail for miles. This or that desolate road crossing. This or that cluster of silos at a dairy farm. A sad-looking roadside bar. The scary-fun descent to the railroad tracks near Lemington, and then the grunt climb back up from them. Warning! Trains are moving at 60 mph!
In that magical way that they always do, the miles kept ticking by: the number on my bike computer kept climbing, and the numbers on the mileposts kept falling. Occasionally riding next to me or even in front, Tom said he wanted to stop at Birchwood, the biggest town on the course, for one last rest before the push to the finish. I agreed, both because I too wanted a little more time off the bike and because I needed to call my hotel in Rice Lake and beg them to let me check out far later than planned.
We reached Birchwood – bluegill capital of Wisconsin! – just before noon. A few other racers and volunteers were sitting heavily at tables inside a huge convenience store. I made my call and was relieved to hear I could just show up whenever; no problem. A machine-made cappuccino looked and tasted fantastic. We chatted with the other guys. I ordered french fries that looked amazing but tasted terrible. After too much idle time, we got back on the trail for the last 15 or 20 miles.
The rest of the course ran steadily downhill to Rice Lake after passing over some rollers that would be insignificant in any other race (and indeed that I had not even noticed on the way out) but that today, now, felt like Himalayas. I set for myself the dumb goal of riding all these “hills,” and nearly did – a bad gear choice forced me to walk part of the first one. But then I got back on my bike and started riding again.
The miles remaining were in the teens now, and the temperature had broken zero for the first time all race. As we came to the wetland that had been so beautifully frosted the morning before, a white-tailed deer jumped onto the trail, looked at me with disbelief, and started running easily up the trail ahead of me. It stopped at the far edge of the wetland, saw that I was still coming, and plunged back off the trail into the brush. I could only just see the top of its head as we passed.
We also encountered some other trail users: runners making their own slow progress back to Rice Lake. Tom and I had been seeing them here and there for a while, but now we started seeing more – on some straightaways, four or five of them. Some heard us coming and moved over. Others jumped in surprise when we passed, so deep in their efforts that they hadn’t heard our bikes or greetings. We didn’t stop for any of them, but I tried to encourage each one. The poor bastards would need three times longer than Tom and me to cover the remaining distance.
The mileposts started showing single-digit numbers. I kept adding the additional four miles for the spur, but then even that additional distance added up to less than 10 miles. Fueled by the food at Birchwood, warmed by the afternoon sun, enjoying the oh-so-slight downhill, and now sensing the finish line, we were moving at 8, 9, 10 mph. 90 minutes to go. 60 to go. 30 minutes. Milepost 2.
I knew from my pre-ride on Friday and from the outbound ride that we would shortly reach a sharp, tricky dip where erosion had narrowed the trail. I could see a runner ahead of me. He disappeared, and my fuzzy brain figured that he had gone down into the dip. A moment later I reached the lip of it, and sure enough the runner there, trudging up the far side. I yelled to him and zoomed down and back up, passing him narrowly and getting out of my saddle to keep the speed going so I wouldn’t have to walk this last slope.
I popped out on the far crest and suddenly felt like mashing the pedals. 5 miles to go – half an hour if I really pushed, less if I really, really pushed. I stayed up on my pedals until my quads couldn’t take it, then downshifted to try to maintain the same speed while seated. I heard traffic – cars on the highway parallel to the spur to the finish line. I glanced back for Tom, but he wasn’t there.
I zipped over the highway, turned left down the spur into town, glanced back again. Tom was just approaching the highway. Slow down for him? I couldn’t. I needed to be done. Standing or sitting, I tried to keep my speed as high as my legs would allow. Cars buzzed along the highway to my left. I bumped up and down and up and down over the berms of snow at each road crossing. I noted that I might be able to finish by 3 p.m., 33 hours after the start. A dumb goal, but why not? A junkyard. The city limits sign. And the finish line! I dutifully rode over the line itself and then turned, elated and exhausted, toward the race headquarters. As if on cue, the race director came outside to greet me. A handshake. An escort into the bright warmth of the HQ. Applause from everyone inside. A cold beer. The finisher’s hat. A chair to sit in after 32:57 of racing.
I’ve been floating on air for the last couple days because it’s finally time to race bikes again. After missing two races (and six weeks of riding) with my broken finger this summer, I tried to get back to riding seriously. Though I didn’t log as many hours or miles as I’d hoped, I have had a pretty good last couple months, and feel solid heading into the season’s first big race: the Tuscobia 160, an out-and-back race between Rice Lake and Park Falls, Wisconsin. 80 miles each way, the course is primarily flat, straight snowmobile trails – scenic in an understated Midwestern way. Not for us, those towering peaks out west!
I have done Tuscobia once before, in January 2016, when I finished in 23:38. I hope to beat that time this year. Going under 20 hours isn’t unfeasible, but then again, my lack of bike time this year might mean another 24-hour effort. Other riders have reported that the trail is in great shape, with much more snow than we have in Northfield and enough traffic to pack the powder into a solid, fast surface. The wild card this year is the temperature: forecasts for Saturday and Sunday show a high around 0° F and lows around -15° F, about the same range we encountered in 2016. I’m eager to see how I feel in the cold again, and to get back into that fascinating state of pure effort.
This year the race will be tracked by Trackleaders; anyone can “follow the dots” at http://trackleaders.com/tuscobia17. The full distance bike racers start at 6 a.m. Central time on Saturday, December 30!